Stamps on the Moon: The strange story of the Apollo 15 scandal (that wasn’t).

Forty-five years ago today, on July 31, 1971, the astronauts of NASA’s Apollo 15 mission were the first astronauts to drive a lunar rover on the Moon. Apollo 15, the third-to-last manned voyage beyond Earth, was one of the most scientifically and technically successful space missions of all time. Astronauts Dave Scott and James Irwin explored the lunar surface for 3 days while Al Worden flew above in the command module. It was your standard-issue “great moment for America” that had become somewhat routine two years after the first landing of Apollo 11. But a curious thing happened on the Apollo 15 mission, something I read about years ago but which always confused me whenever I encountered it: a scandal, or so it was reported in the press, involving, of all things, stamps, envelopes and a greedy stamp dealer in Germany. You would think that the Herculean effort in getting to the Moon and returning three men safely would overshadow a fracas involving stamps, but there it is.

The story of Apollo 15’s stamp controversy begins, not really with stamps, but with life insurance. I did not realize this before I began researching this article, but all of the Apollo astronauts had a very big problem: their jobs were considered so dangerous that life insurance for them was prohibitively expensive. You’d think an insurance company would step up to the plate and wager a little money on America’s space program, but I guess that was too much to ask. In lieu of life insurance, many astronauts went into the business of selling autographs and memorabilia and putting the proceeds into trust funds for their families. A common practice was signing “first day covers,” autographed envelopes with special stamps postmarked on their first day of official issue, which philatelists (stamp collectors) will pay a lot of money for. If a first day cover signed by an astronaut had actually been to the Moon and back, it was worth more money; thus NASA permitted astronauts to bring certain souvenirs with them for this purpose. Today, a single first day cover signed by Neil Armstrong can fetch as much as $30,000 at auction.

apollo 15 first day cover

This is one of the infamous first day covers flown to the Moon (and back) by the crew of Apollo 15. It’s postmarked July 26, 1971, the day of the launch.

The Apollo 15 astronauts, Scott, Irwin and Worden, of course wanted a part of this trade, just as other astronauts on previous missions were. When their spaceship Endeavour blasted off from Florida on July 26, 1971, a total of 398 envelopes with commemorative stamps were on board. There was later controversy about whether these particular envelopes were permitted as part of the ship’s manifest, or whether they’d been smuggled aboard the capsule by the astronauts. The mission, of course, was a great success, and Endeavour splashed down in the Pacific on August 7, the crew being picked up by the aircraft carrier USS Okinawa. Before the flight, the astronauts had made a deal with a German collector to sell him the covers, which would not be placed on the open market until after the Apollo program ended. Someone jumped the gun, however: the Apollo 15 covers suddenly appeared on the stamp market in Germany shortly after the flight, in violation of the agreement made with the astronauts. They refused the money, but the incident became a big brouhaha in the press. Astronauts smuggling stamps to the Moon to make money from America’s space program? Horrors!

NASA decided to avenge the black eye the incident gave it in the press by punishing the astronauts. They were reprimanded and hauled before a Senate committee, where they testified (truthfully) that they had done nothing wrong. None of the three ever flew in space again. Irwin had something close to a heart attack on the flight back from the Moon; he ultimately died from another heart attack 20 years later. Scott and Worden, who are both still alive, have steadfastly maintained their innocence. NASA seems to have hung them out to dry for doing something no different than other astronauts had done.

Apollo 15 was the mission on which this video, the feather and the hammer dropping at the same speed, was filmed. Incidentally, this clip single-handedly proves that the ridiculous “Moon landing was faked” conspiracy theories are false.

Personally, I find the whole controversy ridiculous. These men risked their lives for their country–one of them having a heart attack in space–and not only would no insurance company step up to provide for their families if anything happened, but they were pilloried for making an honest deal that was intended to make up for the fact that they couldn’t get insurance. A trip to the Moon is a gargantuan, complex and hazardous undertaking. The fact that a few envelopes went along for the ride, however they got there, seems pretty insignificant in comparison. Cheers to the astronauts of Apollo 15 for the wonderful job they did on their lunar mission. You get my stamp of approval.

All the images in this article are in the public domain.
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